kottke.org posts about suicide
ESPN’s Kate Fagan with Split Image, a look at depression and suicide in the age of social media.
On Instagram, Madison Holleran’s life looked ideal: Star athlete, bright student, beloved friend. But the photos hid the reality of someone struggling to go on.
(Life’s never as good as it looks on Facebook or as bad as it sounds on Twitter.)
In late March 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate group were found dead in a mansion in California, having committed mass suicide in anticipation of being picked up by a spacecraft following the Hale-Bopp comet. When police discovered the bodies and word began to spread via national news, mailing lists, and online forums, a major point of focus was the extensive amount of information left on the group’s website.
Whether Hale-Bopp has a “companion” or not is irrelevant from our perspective. However, its arrival is joyously very significant to us at “Heaven’s Gate.” The joy is that our Older Member in the Evolutionary Level Above Human (the “Kingdom of Heaven”) has made it clear to us that Hale-Bopp’s approach is the “marker” we’ve been waiting for — the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to “Their World” — in the literal Heavens. Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion — “graduation” from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave “this world” and go with Ti’s crew.
If you study the material on this website you will hopefully understand our joy and what our purpose here on Earth has been. You may even find your “boarding pass” to leave with us during this brief “window.”
Which website, as Gizmodo’s Ashley Feinberg reports, is still very much operational, thanks to the efforts of a pair of Heaven’s Gate members who chose to remain in their fleshy “vehicles” on Earth.
Every month, the bills get paid on time. The emails get answered, and any orders filled. Which, for HeavensGate.com, is positively extraordinary. Because as far as the public is aware, every last member of the suicide cult died 17 years ago from a cocktail of arsenic and apple sauce. A few stayed behind, though. Someone had to keep the homepage going.
The site is still up, in part, because the group supported themselves financially by running a web design business.
As far as early 90s web design firms go, Higher Source did it all. And looking back at the archived site for the group’s occupational design firm, while they never directly mention their affiliation with the Heaven’s Gate cult, subtle references to the company’s origins abound. With Higher Source, you were getting “a crew-minded effort” from people who have worked “closely” together for 20 years. Of course, close in this case meant literal bunkmates.
You were getting a lot more than that, though. UFO and suicide cult connotations of hindsight aside, this is one of the most pristine testaments to early internet web design around. Not only could Higher Source program in Java, C++, and Visual Basic as well as use Shockwave, QuickTime, and AVI, they could gradient the hell out of your word art, too.
In 1997, I was working as a web designer for a small web development firm in Minneapolis. Our homepage and services offered were not all that different than Higher Source’s. I remember vividly being in the office when the news of the suicide hit and a bunch of us gathered around a computer, browsing through the site before the TV news mentions finally crashed it. It was the first time an internet meme was a major aspect of a national news story. Like, holy shit, they are talking about web design on CNN!
What I don’t remember clearly is if Heaven’s Gate / Higher Source was being discussed online before the suicides happened. It seems like a UFO cult that also did web design would have been a prime topic for conversation in web development circles. Does anyone recall either way?
Update: Meant to add, watching the videotaped statements of each Heaven’s Gate Member before they killed themselves is weird and chilling. They’re almost giddy!
Recent analysis by specialists shows that Junior Seau, the former stand-out NFL linebacker who committed suicide last year, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the time of his death. CTE is associated with repeated trauma to the head and has been found in many ex-NFL players, including a few that have committed suicide.
“I think it’s important for everyone to know that Junior did indeed suffer from CTE,” Gina Seau said. “It’s important that we take steps to help these players. We certainly don’t want to see anything like this happen again to any of our athletes.”
She said the family was told that Seau’s disease resulted from “a lot of head-to-head collisions over the course of 20 years of playing in the NFL. And that it gradually, you know, developed the deterioration of his brain and his ability to think logically.”
Experts caution that correlation is not causation, but as these incidents mount, the NFL is going to come under increasing pressure to act, causation or no.
This is an amazing statement:
For the second year in a row, the U.S. military has lost more troops to suicide than it has to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rochus Misch, now 92, recollects that he was in Adolf Hitler’s bunker when the German dictator committed suicide.
“Then Bormann ordered Hitler’s door to be opened. I saw Hitler slumped with his head on the table. Eva Braun was lying on the sofa, with her head towards him. Her knees were drawn tightly up to her chest. She was wearing a dark blue dress with white frills. I will never forget it.
A study of several deaths in Kentucky by Russian Roulette, a game played when you’re out of your mind and literally ends the same way.
In one situation, a 22-year-old African American man used a 0.22 caliber revolver in a game with a friend. Each participant pulled the trigger on two occasions; the victim discharged the fatal bullet on his third attempt. […] Four of the victims had pulled the trigger at least 3 times before their fatality.
At least three times! There’s a weird interplay of recklessness and determination going on here.
On May 1, 1947, Evelyn McHale leapt to her death from the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Photographer Robert Wiles took a photo of McHale a few minutes after her death.
The photo ran a couple of weeks later in Life magazine accompanied by the following caption:
On May Day, just after leaving her fiancé, 23-year-old Evelyn McHale wrote a note. ‘He is much better off without me … I wouldn’t make a good wife for anybody,’ … Then she crossed it out. She went to the observation platform of the Empire State Building. Through the mist she gazed at the street, 86 floors below. Then she jumped. In her desperate determination she leaped clear of the setbacks and hit a United Nations limousine parked at the curb. Across the street photography student Robert Wiles heard an explosive crash. Just four minutes after Evelyn McHale’s death Wiles got this picture of death’s violence and its composure.
From McHale’s NY Times obituary, Empire State Ends Life of Girl, 20:
At 10:40 A. M., Patrolman John Morrissey of Traffic C, directing traffic at Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, noticed a swirling white scarf floating down from the upper floors of the Empire State. A moment later he heard a crash that sounded like an explosion. He saw a crowd converge in Thirty-third Street.
Two hundred feet west of Fifth Avenue, Miss McHale’s body landed atop the car. The impact stove in the metal roof and shattered the car’s windows. The driver was in a near-by drug store, thereby escaping death or serious injury.
On the observation deck, Detective Frank Murray of the West Thirtieth Street station, found Miss McHale’s gray cloth coat, her pocketbook with several dollars and the note, and a make-up kit filled with family pictures.
The serenity of McHale’s body amidst the crumpled wreckage it caused is astounding. Years later, Andy Warhol appropriated Wiles’ photography for a print called Suicide (Fallen Body), but I can’t find a copy of it anywhere online. Anyone?
Update: A not-so-great representation of Warhol’s version of this photograph is available at Google Books. (thx, ruben)
Update: Here’s a better photo of Warhol’s print. (thx, lots of people)
Update: Here’s the page as it appeared in Life Magazine.
Update: Codex 99 did some research on McHale and her activities on the day she died.
MySpace is having “a press conference to make a major announcement in regards to Internet safety” today at the Sheraton in New York at 11 a.m. EST, according to their press office. (If you want to listen in, citizen journalist, you can dial it up and listen in at 800-895-0231 or 785-424-1054, with conference ID: ABCDE.) Quite possibly related: Today, the New Yorker takes on the so-called “MySpace Suicide Hoax,” in which 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself after being taunted by neighbors posing on MySpace as a teen boy. In the neighborhood drama that ensued, an innocent foosball table was also destroyed.
The rate of suicides off of the Golden Gate Bridge increased sharply in 2006, in part because of the local screening of The Bridge, a documentary about Golden Gate Bridge suicides. “The Bridge premiered locally in April. In May, four people jumped to their deaths and another 11 tried to commit suicide. Normally, no more than two people succeed per month, and an average of four others attempt to jump.”
New project from Cory Arcangel: Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter with Google AdSense ads (which are automatically generated based on the content of the page). Current ads include ones for free ringtones, techniques to end anxiety, and public speaking training.
Having lived in San Francisco, I’ve walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and driven across it countless times. The bridge is a nearly perfect metaphor for what some people go there to do. The view on a clear day into the city, the red painted cables glowing in the sun, the sudden way the fog comes in off the ocean to envelop the bridge, the path from the cold city to the warmth of Marin County. Death too is beautiful, dramatic, mysterious, abrupt, and an escape to another place.
In The Bridge, a film about the Golden Gate and suicide, director Eric Steel makes effective use of the bridge’s imagery and its relation to death; you can see why so many people choose to end their lives there. The footage he and his crew got is astounding at times…families discuss the death of a loved one while that same person is shown pacing back and forth on the bridge, thinking, waiting. You see a group of police officers, looking almost bored (which was probably hyper-aware nonchalance), talking a man back over the railing.
And yet, I can’t tell if that footage actually added anything to the discussion of the issues of mental illness, depression, and coping which were at the heart of many of the jumpers’ problems. Does watching death make it any more understandable to family members. To audience members? The footage doesn’t say why, it just shows us how, and those aren’t quite the same things.
Here’s an earlier post on The Bridge, a graph of suicides by location on the Bridge, and the New Yorker article by Tad Friend that inspired the film.
One of the films premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival is The Bridge, a documentary by Eric Steel about suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge. The trailer is available on the festival site but be warned that it contains actual footage of people climbing over the railing of the bridge to commit suicide.
The Bridge was inspired by a 2003 New Yorker story by Tad Friend called Jumpers, a piece about suicide and the bridge. The subject of suicide is often not discussed in the media. Self-inflicted deaths aren’t usually reported in the newspapers or on TV. Suicide prevention activists caution against suicide contagion due to media exposure of individual suicides leading to copycat deaths.
But that’s just the start of the controversy surrounding the film. In order to secure a permit to shoot the Golden Gate (which he did for the entirety of 2004, amassing almost 10,000 hours of footage), Steel said he was shooting footage to capture “the powerful, spectacular intersection of monument and nature that takes place every day at the Golden Gate Bridge”. He says he lied to discourage people to seek out his cameras to immortalize their deaths on film, but it’s also true that Golden Gate National Recreation Area officials certainly wouldn’t have given him a permit to film suicides.
Steel interviewed family members of the jumpers without disclosing that he’d filmed the death of their loved ones (again to avoid publicity for the filming and the death immortalization problem). Some family members felt manipulated by the omission when they learned of it.
Then there’s the matter of the filming itself. The film crew’s basic job description was to wait for people to die…they needed people to die for their film. If there’s no good footage of people jumping, there’s no film. Without too much trouble, you can imagine Steel instructing his crew to shoot the next one at a wider angle, the crew refining their techniques for catching the jumpers on film, and the mixture of excitement, dread, and the satisfaction of a job well done when they catch a jumper on film. But the crew was also trained in suicide prevention and intervened in several attempts. And listening to Steel talk about the film, it obviously wasn’t meant to be Faces of Death Part XII.
Here are a few more articles on The Bridge:
- Film documenting Golden Gate Bridge suicides premieres, San Jose Mercury News
- Golden Gate star of dark documentary, San Francisco Chronicle
- Man Survives Suicide Jump From Golden Gate Bridge, ABC News
Bunny suicides. In how many ways can a bunny off itself? (thx, richard)
Update: Turns out these are scans from The Book of Bunny Suicides. In exchange for viewing the pirated copy on the web, how about picking up one for a twisted friend for the holidays?
Cory Arcangel is committing Friendster Suicide tonight at The Believer Dec/Jan issue launch party at PS1. You can also follow along at home: “Friendster me sometime before [the performance], and around 8:40 EST on Thursday(ish), I assume if you keep reloading your browser window on Friendster, I think I will simply disappear from your friend list.” Antisocial networking.
Graph of suicides by location off the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a fascinating graph. More overall deaths on the SF half than the Marin half and way more on the bay side. A lot of people walked pretty far before jumping. And lightpost 69…it looks to be about halfway between the towers…lots of symbolism there for the jumpers.
The Onion: Project Manager Leaves Suicide PowerPoint Presentation. “We all got Ron’s message loud and clear when that JPEG of his wife wipe-transitioned to a photo of her tombstone”. (via mathowie)